Showing What You Know

As both a Certified Cicerone® and accredited Beer Sommelier, I’m often asked what the difference is between the certifications and how to best prepare for each assessment.

To get right to the good stuff, I’ve pulled together a handy side-by-side comparison of both exams, which you can view here.

But I also wanted to say a bit more about why I pursued each certification and how my experience of each differed.

Why pursue a certification?

In the big wide world of beer, there certainly is a lot to learn. While there’s tons of information available on the Internet, sometimes it’s tough to know what sources to trust.

At least that’s how I felt.

With my background in academia, I spent a lot of time making sure I found the most reputable sources for research.

And with beer, I wanted to do the same.

I wanted to make sure I was learning the “right” information, and more importantly, passing on the right information, as I knew early on I had an interest in sharing my passion for beer with others.

Essentially, I wanted a third-party to verify that I know what I know.

Here in the UK, that organization is the Institute of Brewing and Distilling’s Beer & Cider Academy and in the US, it’s the Cicerone Certification Program.

Both organizations help set the standard for what today’s beer advocates and experts need to know about beer.

Cicerone Certification

As my beer journey began in the States, the Cicerone program is what I started with, as I knew it best. After a bit of self-study, I took the 60-question online exam to pass the first level of certification – Certified Beer Server.

The next level required a bit more study though. It was nearly a year and a half between my exams (I did happen to move jobs and countries in that time though, so it’s no wonder it took me a little while to get around to it!), but by January 2017, I was ready to take the second level – Certified Cicerone.

Held a few times a year here in the UK (and much more often in the States), candidates sit this exam in person.

The exam consists of a three hour written portion with fill in the blank, short answer, and essay questions. A 45-minute tasting exam follows, involving identification of off-flavours, style discrimination, and assessing if a beer is fit to serve. Then finally, a short demonstration component is required on an aspect of beer service.

The written and tasting portions are conducted in a large room with each candidate sat at a separate table recording his or her answers. You then leave the room and are called back in one-by-one for the demonstration component.

As the preparation is completely through independent study, the Cicerone program provides an in-depth syllabus and a whole host of recommended reading materials across five key subject areas – keeping and serving beer, beer styles, beer flavour and evaluation, beer ingredients and brewing processes, and pairing beer with food.

The three most helpful resources that I recommend knowing inside and out are Randy Mosher’s book Tasting Beer, the Brewers Association Draught Beer Quality Manual and the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines.

To prepare for the practical portion, be sure to taste each style as you study the BJCP guidelines as this really helps bring the descriptions to life. (The guidelines include is a list of commercial examples for each style.)

Additionally, training with an off flavour kit is a must. (Just a heads up, I ran into a sticky customs situation trying to order the off-flavours kit from the US. So if you’re UK based, save yourself the headache and order from AROXA – they make the kit for the Cicerone program anyhow. Note that the AROXA Beer Uno kit does not contain acetaldehyde though, so you will have to buy that one separately. Alternatively, if you are planning to go for the Beer Sommelier eventually, you can also take the How to Judge Beer course at the Beer & Cider Academy, as a way to get in some off-flavours training.)

As the cost for these items can really add up, I recommend getting a study group together. It reduces costs and makes studying a lot more fun. Plus, it’s a great way to make new friends. (Shout out to my “Som Kind of Wonderful” study buddies here in London! If you want to get stuck in, there’s a new group meet-up starting next Monday. Come join!)

Beer Sommelier

I pursued the Cicerone certification first because I was much more familiar with it being from the States. But I quickly found that it was seen as rather US-centric here in the UK. (This has started to change now that the Cicerone program has introduced a UK-specific syllabus. However, as my assessment was on the original syllabus, I can’t speak to the changes.)

The more common certification here in the UK is the Beer & Cider Academy’s Beer Sommelier accreditation.

In addition to self-study, this accreditation requires candidates to take three day-long courses at the Academy: Foundation, Advanced and How to Judge Beer.

During the Foundation and Advanced courses, you learn about beer’s ingredients, beer styles, the brewing process, beer history, and beer and food pairing, but most importantly, you learn how to describe a beer – based on what you see, smell, taste and feel. It’s this aspect of the course that is most useful for this assessment.

The focus of the How to Judge course is beer quality, helping you identify off-flavours and learn their causes. (The course also goes into how to judge beer styles for various competitions which does enable you to start judging afterwards, if interested.)

After completing the courses, a few weeks (to months) of independent study is recommended in order to review the course material (each course comes with a coursebook of the material covered) and to famailiarise yourself with a broad range of beer styles to be able to describe and identify them on your exam.

The Beer Sommelier assessment is in-person and requires blind tasting and style identification of fifteen different beer styles and five off-flavours. Candidates sit one-to-one with the assessor for 90 minutes and all answers are spoken, there is no written component.

Additionally, each candidate prepares a Portfolio of Evidence of their relevant experience (suggestions include beer lists or beer and food pairings created, beer flavour notes or articles written, beer events/dinners hosted, etc.). Your portfolio is discussed with the assessor at the beginning of the exam and helps to determine how much course content will be covered during your exam. (For example, if you have a thinner portfolio, you will likely be asked more questions from the course content.)

The Beer Sommelier assessment is primarily focused on communicating about beer, hence why all answers are spoken. To get the most out of your studies, make sure you practice speaking your style descriptions aloud.

Additionally, it helps to have a friend or study buddy select the beers for your tastings so you really are blind to the options. When I was studying, I tasted each style, practiced my descriptions, then had my partner pour me a sample when I left the room. I realised later though that I was too focused on matching each sample to the known options (ie. the empty bottles in front of me) and didn’t do enough truly “blind” tasting practice (meaning with no idea of the beers involved.)

My experience

From my experience, the Cicerone certification feels more like a test of “book smarts”, while the Beer Sommelier is a much more “practical” assessment. And, for me, that made the Beer Sommelier assessment much more challenging.

With years of experience in academia, I’m good at memorizing facts and spitting them back out on exams, so while there was a lot of information to learn on the Cicerone syllabus, I felt more comfortable with that test format.

Yes, there is a hands-on tasting component in the Cicerone exam, but there are parameters set. Of the four off-flavour samples in the exam, you’re given a range of six answers to choose from.  The style identification asks if it’s style A or B (for example, you taste a sample and need to determine if it’s a British brown ale or a Belgian dubbel). Past experience tasting these beers will help, certainly, but if you know your BJCP style guidelines inside and out, you’ll know what tell-tale characteristics to look for to tell the two apart. Even in the final section, beer acceptance, being told whether the beer was served from a bottle or on draft gives you an idea of what possible quality issues can arise (you’d never taste a light-struck beer from a keg, for example.)

With the Beer Sommelier assessment, there are no parameters set on what styles to expect and the examples can range from traditional to modern. Additionally, ten off-flavours are taught in class and any five can appear on the exam.

My flights included two rounds of golden beers, followed by two rounds of amber-coloured beers, then finally dark beers. So, of course, colour does help set some style parameters. But in a high-stress environment, under a time-crunch and sat directly across from the assessor, it’s difficult to think through all possible style options and answer quickly. (It’s not like you’ve just got a test paper in front of you and can close your eyes or lookup to the ceiling and rack your brain a bit!)

I was also unaware that your Portfolio of Evidence would dictate the content covered on the exam.  I had reviewed the course content in great detail expecting to be asked questions from it, but because of my Cicerone certification and experience hosting events, tastings, and trainings, my assessment was “practical” only.

Beyond the stress of the exam environment, I found 20 total beer samples (15 for style identification and 5 spikes) rather overwhelming to my palate, as well. (For comparison, Cicerone has 12 samples total.)

Another tip, don’t second guess yourself on the style identification. On multiple occasions I narrowed my choice down to two styles, mulled things over a little too much, and ended up going for the wrong one. Go with your gut.

While the Beer Academy courses cover much of the same content as the Certified Cicerone syllabus (see my chart for a side-by-side comparison), the most notable difference is that Cicerone covers draft dispense in great detail and it’s not a topic of consideration for Beer Sommelier. (I found it to be one of the tougher aspects of the Cicerone syllabus, but as I mentioned earlier, the Brewers Association Draught Beer Quality Manual is your best friend here.)

Another point of note is that the Beer Academy courses don’t cover as many beer styles as the Cicerone syllabus, but that’s partly because the Beer Academy groups certain beer styles together and uses a mix of Brewers Association & BJCP style guidelines.

For example, “IPA” is presented as a style and is not broken into English vs American.  The single slide on the “Belgian Strong Ale” style includes both golden and dark variants. The “Stout” that’s tasted in class is, more often than not, Guinness, a dry Irish stout, but the slide also mentions sweet, imperial, oatmeal and oyster stouts with no further explanation.

This approach is likely just to help keep the course notes manageable, but for people newer to beer, they might not know that in other style guidelines these are each considered separate styles.

Perhaps they’re confident that those nuances will be discovered during independent study, as there simply isn’t enough time to cover all styles in class in addition to the rest of the course material*. But if that is the case, I think it would better serve the Beer Academy to pick one set of style guidelines to consistently reference (either BJCP or the Brewers Association) so candidates know what source to turn to to learn more.

Regardless of what qualification you decide to study for, you’ll learn a heck of a lot along the way.

Your thoughts

I felt that the more academic approach of the Cicerone certification better suited my study skills, so I found the Beer Sommelier assessment more difficult. But everyone is different.

Have you taken one or both assessments? How did your experiences compare? It would be great to hear your feedback in the comments, including if you have any study tips that worked well for you.

Again, I can’t reiterate enough, these are my personal experiences, yours will vary – heck, both might be a breeze!

One of my biggest takeaways from this whole certification experience is how I felt walking out of my Beer Sommelier assessment. I passed (yay!), but I certainly didn’t pass with flying colours, so I couldn’t help feel a bit down on myself. That said though, the overarching feeling was one of determination – to get even better at blind tastings and to really sharpen that skill set. (Which will be particularly helpful as I’m gearing up for the Advanced Cicerone certification next year because the tasting component is much more involved than in the Certified!)

I have found so much value in pursuing these certifications.

Not only do they demonstrate that I possess a wealth of knowledge about beer, which encourages others to believe in me. Most importantly, they’ve helped me believe in myself and all that I can achieve in this industry.

If you’re thinking of taking one and aren’t sure where to start, don’t hesitate to be in touch.

Cheers,
Nat

//

*Disclosure: I say this as I have recently taught the Foundation course for the Beer Academy, after passing my Beer Sommelier assessment, and there is a lot of content to cover in a short amount of time!

//

Update and another disclosure: I thought this post was already long enough, but I realised right after I published it that I was missing one important topic – cost.

These exams can be a rather expensive undertaking and cost can vary depending on the number of beers, books, and other study materials you purchase. I have been very fortunate to have a lot of support from Duvel for my studies. They partially funded my Cicerone exam and covered my Beer Sommelier courses and assessment in full. I am so grateful for their support and am pleased to say I’m now an even better ambassador for our incredible range of beers.

For a quick cost breakdown, the Certified Cicerone exam is $395 (approx. £310 at today’s exchange rate), and at a miniumum, you’ll need to purchase beers to study, find your way to an off-flavours training or buy your own kit, and likely buy a few books, too.

Each course at the Beer & Cider Academy varies from £130 – 150 (plus VAT and booking fees), then the assessment is £225 (plus VAT). So you’re looking at a minimum spend of £635 (plus VAT and booking fees, which brings it to £790.53 if you can’t claim the VAT back).  While you’ve got the course notes from the Academy and you get at least one go with most styles and each off-flavour, you’ll definitely need to purchase more beers for independent study and may want to give off-flavours another go before your exam.

These costs can be made more manageable by forming study groups, but know that these resources will be helpful in the future – I still reference Tasting Beer all the time – so think of these as investment pieces (if that helps!). If you’re looking for folks to study with, give me a shout and I’ll try and make some connections.

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